EACH week the puppies who will one day help to transform the lives of people with disabilities come to the training centre at Heyshott, where they are put through their paces.
What they learn during the classes will be reinforced on a daily basis by the devoted ‘puppy parents’ who care for the youngsters for more than a year to prepare them for when they enter advanced training.
This week Jo Rothery returns to the Canine Partners’ puppy training class for the second of our step-by-step guides giving invaluable advice to pet-owners on how they can benefit from the methods used by the charity’s experts to teach basic training to potential assistance dogs.
Bonny, a Labrador/retriever just five-and-a-half months old, is one of the younger dogs currently attending training classes with her puppy parent, Christine Harris. Fifteen youngsters are learning basic obedience at Heyshott and more than 100 others are going through basic training at Canine Partner ‘satellites’ all over Britain.
Although she is so young, Bonny has already mastered the art of two essential elements which will stand her in good stead once she is partnered with a disabled person – sit and wait, and down and wait.
The bouncy bundle of fun which dashed into the training room, greeting puppy trainer Elaine Potter with great enthusiasm, settled down quickly and moments later was lying calmly beside Christine.
“Bonny looks like a pure Labrador but in fact she is a cross between a Labrador and a golden retriever, a very good mix which gives her a nice, laid-back temperament,” Christine said.
“She loves the classes and picks things up very quickly, but of course we practise at home with her every day.”
Minutes later, Bonny and Christine took to the floor, with Elaine keeping a close eye on the proceedings and offering advice from time to time. Bonny remained on her lead throughout – a special lead which can be kept short or extended when required is used during training sessions.
Everything is done calmly with hand signals and instructions delivered in a quiet voice – and with plenty of treats on hand to reward the dog at every stage.
With her hand held out flat, Christine gave Bonny the ‘down’ command. Then Christine unclipped the lead to extend it, gave the ‘wait’ command and walked in a wide circle around Bonny.
Having completed a slow circuit, Christine returned to Bonny, knelt down, praised her and rewarded her with a treat. “Facial expressions are very important, showing the dog that you are pleased with what they are doing,” said Elaine. “And all the time, you praise her quietly.”
The same exercise was repeated successfully a couple of times, and then Christine once more put Bonny into the down position but widened her circuit to walk right round the room. Again Bonny stayed put, watching Christine’s every step, until her puppy parent returned, knelt down and made a big fuss of her.
Bonny proved equally obedient when it came to the sit and wait procedure, as was one-year-old Labrador Toffee who demonstrated both while the Observer photographer videoed it all. You can watch Toffee and his puppy parent Sue Simms in on our special video.